Gary Towne

Interested in what you can do with a degree in Asian Studies? In our Alumni Spotlight Interview Series, we ask our alumni about their career paths, how they became interested in Asian Studies and for any advice they would give to current students. This interview features Gary Towne, BA ’93 in Asian Studies and International Relations.

Please tell us a bit about yourself. Where do you live? What are you currently doing?

I am working in ESL for Asian immigrants, my main field since my days at UBC in the early 1990s. After graduation, I was teaching in Indonesia for a year, and much later, in China for 3 years. In between and afterwards, I was teaching at various private ESL schools in Greater Vancouver for a dozen years, plus tutoring and proofreading on the side. Recently, since my return from China just before the Olympics (not a coincidence), I have been weaning myself off of ESL and am working in an unrelated service field in Vancouver while looking at some entrepreneurial possibilities in China, some with current and former students of mine.

What brought you to study Asian Studies at UBC?

This being an academic, non-job-specific study, my classmates joined for many different reasons and with widely different aspirations and abilities. Like many, I joined out of general interest, having first gained a love of learning and an appreciation of Asian cultures from my mom, who was a voracious reader and a frustrated armchair traveler. That general interest had been greatly intensified by my participation in an 8-month Canada World Youth program to Indonesia in 1985-86, about which I wrote some articles for a local newspaper in my hometown. I was hoping to develop a career in an embassy or in third world development programs, so I joined the Pacific Rim program at Langara, and then transferred to UBC to continue my studies. My highlights there included working with the Japanese foreign students, going on field trips with professors, organizing other cultural field trips myself for the classes, and finally, joining the Asia Pacific Study Tour with the prof, and then writing articles about it for the Pacific Rim magazine.

What were some of your highlights at UBC?

I chose not to live on campus, but I was heavily involved in extracurricular activities on and off campus that complemented and supplemented my academic studies, such as the (unfortunately now defunct) Pacific Rim Club, where I organized the first two Greater Vancouver annual Chinese speech contests. Besides that, it was a thrill to be surrounded by smart people who were in class because they wanted to be there, and getting to know many students and profs from such diverse backgrounds. I also loved frequenting the libraries, Asian Centre, volunteering in international conferences and cultural presentations, and developing several endearing and enduring friendships and contacts. Also while at UBC, I received two scholarships for language and immersion programs: one in Indonesia and another in Québec. Meanwhile, I became heavily involved in the local Chinese and Indonesian communities, such as ethnic/linguistic-based churches, consulates, student groups, and even performing arts groups, such as an Indonesian pop band and a Sumatran dance troupe, and later, in gamelan and Javanese dance groups and a kung fu school. It was all part of my “Jedi training,” an expression I tell my kids when I try to teach them to do more than what is simply required of them.

What did you do after graduation?

After graduation, I was frustrated with both the American Foreign Service and Canadian External Affairs entrance exam (I am a dual citizen), that are focused more on recent news trivia than on anything useful or relevant that I learned at UBC. Disillusioned and disappointed, and deciding that I was probably over-romanticizing such a post anyway, I turned to ESL because I was already familiar and experienced with tutoring, due to helping many international students at school. Teaching overseas was a natural choice, as I could then also develop a more intensive and prolonged experience in the countries that I had been most studying. My first real teaching job was in Indonesia for a year. I continued with this as a career when I came back to Vancouver, taking the TEFL program at UBC, and getting into progressively bigger and better schools, the climax of which was a position in northeast China with Capilano College’s joint venture program there, where I stayed for 3 years. Since returning, I have been trying to get out of teaching/ tutoring/ proofreading and more into international business or maybe even go back toward my previous goal of writing.

What do you think about teaching?

Although it is not a prerequisite, I think any language teacher should first have been a language student and traveler in order both to better understand and explain one’s own language, as well as to better respect and sympathize with the students. Teaching locally is like traveling, without all the hotel bills and expensive airplane tickets. Of course, to develop a lasting and professional career in the field, you must have a degree in education.

How is working and living abroad as a foreigner?

Having been an expat a few years, and having observed many expats, I can say that, as opposed to just traveling abroad to get a superficial tourist experience, living abroad is not for everyone, as this experience demands as much as it offers. Even when I joined Canada World Youth 2 decades ago, the screening process was rigorous in order to select participants that would benefit the most (i.e. not crack up or cause problems or embarrass Canada, but rather do something useful with the experience). All the more so it should be for adults; a prolonged sojourn overseas is not only the best education and the most life-altering or enhancing experience, but also demands a lot of respect for other peoples and cultures, a lot of flexibility and humility. Indeed, I often felt compelled to apologize to our Indonesian or Chinese hosts or colleagues on behalf of other expats who could give foreigners a bad name. Just as when you marry, you are marrying your spouse’s whole family and culture, when you travel, the cultural experience is a two-way street, as the traveler is a cultural ambassador of his/her (perceived) country and culture of origin.

Any specific advice for current students or for alumni going abroad?

While at school, don’t just STUDY a foreign language and culture, but LIVE it and make it your own. Join as many social groups that you can find that bear any relevance to your specific study. I also recommend taking a second major or at least a minor in a less academic, more pragmatic field that can be compatible with Asian Studies, such as business, education, computing, etc. I often tell my students and sons that if you only do what your teachers tell you to do, that is the minimum; always try to do more than what is expected. Good marks are, of course, important, but not as important as what you learn: academically, socially, internally, emotionally, and personally. And when you travel, as you should, do behave yourself, and show respect and appreciation and humility!